The archives of brand marketing crawl with attempts by CEOs to use themselves and their personas as the instrument of redemption for the brand. Look under "Steve Jobs and Apple," for instance, or "Lee Iacocca and Chrysler."
But what Akio Toyoda is attempting to do in this regard at the company his grandfather founded, Toyota Motor, may be even more remarkable than the notably successful efforts by Jobs and Iacocca. That's because he is doing it in a racing suit, in really fast cars, on real race tracks. Toyoda, CEO since 2009, has literally become the face of the passion that his company wants consumers to feel when they consider its cars.
"I see myself as a bridge who can talk to both racing pros and average car owners," the 56-year-old chief told reporters at a news conference earlier this year, according to a profile published Friday in the Wall Street Journal.
As WSJ notes, Toyota has been raising Toyoda's profile in the US with campaigns such as the one at top, which is described as: "While some car CEOs push papers, Toyota president Akio Toyoda pushes an 850-horsepower Camry race car. Watch him drive, then check out the reinvented 2012 Camry."
His lieutenants at Toyota are going along presumably because they believe that casting their boss as a cockpit maven bent on danger will help persuade consumers that Toyotas are more than just safe and reliable vehicles. For decades, the company built sales and stole market share, particularly from American brands, precisely because of those attributes. But over the last few years, Toyota's designs slowly got the reputation as being less than awe-inspiring. And when the recall crisis hit in 2009 and then 2011 was a year of highly disruptive natural disasters, Toyota already was down.
Sales are coming back in the U.S. market this year now that Toyota, Lexus and Scion each is in a much flusher position in regard to inventories, and some new products are emerging from the pipeline. But so far Toyota has most closely associated Toyoda's dashing new persona with the launch of the latest Camry, a car that has been the very icon of what the chief is trying to change. It's popular — best-selling car in America for 15 years — but pretty boring.
There are risks in Mr. Toyoda's approach. First is that he might get killed — so his underlings have prevailed upon him to step back from some of the actual competitive racing that he was doing a few years ago. The second risk is that consumers simply won't care whether he likes to race Toyotas or any other cars. While racing has some huge fan cohorts among Americans, there is a bigger overlap with fans of the sport by brands other than Toyota.
In any event, Toyoda is seeming to enjoy the ride.